Back With a Vengeance

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2006

So eagerly awaited that the term "eagerly awaited" is a ridiculous understatement, "The Sopranos" begins its sixth and reportedly final full season tonight on HBO, and advance viewing of the first four installments suggests that television's greatest drama series has only gotten greater.

Twice within those first four new episodes, Tony the clan patriarch and godfather asks: "Who am I? Where am I going?" The questions are elemental, even kind of corny, but millions of viewers will be on the edges of their couches, breathlessly following Tony on his quest for the answers.

Tony's journey, which will occupy 12 weekly episodes this year and an additional eight starting in January, already has been one of the most rewarding and enthralling in the history of the medium. But wait, it gets better. Or, in terms of putting a viewer through the proverbial emotional wringer, it gets worse. It might even call for some newly minted accolades, because it truly is a television landmark that leaves lots of other landmarks in the dust.

Creator and Executive Producer David Chase has insisted that the journey of Tony, Carmela and such maddeningly mysterious new characters as Kevin Finnerty will end with those final eight chapters, no matter how loud the outcry from viewers or HBO executives. But at a glittery preview screening Tuesday night at New York's Museum of Modern Art, dressed in a moderately mobsterly pinstripe suit, Chase looked fit and ready to keep writing. In TV, we must never say never.

And, incredibly enough, he appears to have taken "The Sopranos" to an even higher level than it had achieved. A critic needn't really worry about overdoing the encomiums here or raising viewer expectations too high; once you plunge into the whirlpool of the new "Sopranos," you'll forget what anybody said about it anyway.

As for finding ways to keep the show going beyond next season's Final Eight, there are plenty of possibilities. Even if Tony were to expire in the last chapter -- or, considering the devilish capriciousness of Chase and his cohorts, sooner than that -- life for the family could go on. As the new season starts, for instance, it begins to look as though Tony and Carmela's trouble-prone and sullen son, A.J. (simmering Robert Iler), who has shown no interest in the family business, might develop some, drawn into it by harrowing events.

Not necessarily the way Michael Corleone was converted in "The Godfather," mind you. And then again -- not necessarily not.

It would be, however, grossly unfair not only to Chase and Executive Producer Brad Grey (the industry genius who has become head of Paramount since "The Sopranos" last aired), but also to all the "Sopranos" faithful to reveal what the heart-stopping series of events entails -- or even to divulge only a few events. It's nothing if not eventful -- a mad grand opera combined with a crazed comic opera that manages to be a tour of contemporary America, as well.

Conjecture about a Tony-less "Sopranos" might be folly for the rudimentary reason that James Gandolfini has been so toweringly powerful in the role. "Iconic" is overused these days, and, obviously, TV can stamp out icons almost as rapidly as the mint stamps out quarters, but Tony Soprano is among the largest-looming fabricated characters ever. In the first five seasons, we've seen Tony coldly order many a hit, commit a few himself, even consider murdering his mother before she could murder him. And yet, as Gandolfini plays him, you -- how shall we put it? -- kinda like the guy.

He seems as though he'd be a good neighbor to have, providing, of course, you kept your doggy under close surveillance.

Part of the entertaining irony of "The Sopranos" continues to be the fact that Tony and Carmela (played flawlessly by Edie Falco, Gandolfini's equal) deal with the same mundane details of life that nettle other middle-class parents, although unlike most, Tony does have the option of settling scores by breaking necks. To the credit of Chase and the series's other skillful writers, watching the family deal with W-2 forms, health care, malfunctioning cell phones, malfunctioning building contractors and other banalities remains wittily amusing.

Chase is acutely sensitive, too, as a social observer, forever tossing authentic new ingredients into the melting pot and making them relevant elements in the Sopranos' realm -- a rap star who considers hiring one of Tony's boys to give his career a boost with a bit of good-publicity violence, for example, or a pair of antiabortion demonstrators who have no moral qualms about disturbing the peace in front of a hospital. The blind smile riveted to one fanatic's face is as scary as the scowl of the meanest of mobsters.

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